By Foster Klug and Hyung-
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea —
North Korea said Tuesday it will restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons material, in what outsiders see as its latest attempt to extract U.S. concessions by raising fears of war.
A spokesman for the North’s General Department of Atomic Energy said scientists will quickly begin “readjusting and restarting” the facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, including the plutonium reactor and a uranium enrichment plant. Both could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The reactor began operations in 1986 but was shut down as part of international nuclear disarmament talks in 2007 that have since stalled. North Korea said work to restart the facilities would begin “without delay.” Experts estimate it could take anywhere from three months to a year to reactivate the reactor.
The announcement will boost concerns in Washington and among its allies about North Korea’s timetable for building a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the United States, although it is still believed to be years away from developing that technology.
The nuclear vows and a rising tide of threats in recent weeks are seen as efforts by the North to force disarmament-for-aid talks with Washington and to increase domestic loyalty to young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by portraying him as a powerful military commander.
Hwang Jihwan, a North Korea expert at the University of Seoul, said the North “is keeping tension and crisis alive to raise stakes ahead of possible future talks with the United States.”
“North Korea is asking the world, ‘What are you going to do about this?’” he said.
The unidentified North Korean atomic spokesman said the measure is meant to resolve the country’s acute electricity shortage but is also for “bolstering up the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity,” according to a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The statement suggests the North will do more to produce highly enriched uranium. Uranium worries outsiders because the technology needed to make highly enriched uranium bombs is much easier to hide than huge plutonium facilities. North Korea previously insisted that its uranium enrichment was for producing electricity — meaning low enriched uranium.
Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea, said that by announcing it is “readjusting” all nuclear facilities, including the uranium enrichment plant, North Korea “is blackmailing the international community by suggesting that it will now produce weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that North Korea appears to be “on a collision course with the international community.”